Make telecommuting work for your team

School of Management expert Prasad Balkundi shares his advice and predictions for the future of remote work

Man telecommutes from his dining room, with his dog nearby.

Though remote work exploded in popularity out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies and businesspeople have been telecommuting for decades. Prasad Balkundi, associate professor and chair of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management, first heard about telecommuting in the 1990s, when CMC Limited—a government-owned tech company in India—implemented a rotation system in which employees could book space in the office or work offsite each day, thus alleviating a shortage in office space.

On the flip side, other companies fiercely resisted telecommuting before the pandemic; Marissa Mayer, for example, famously banned remote work for all employees as one of her first major acts as Yahoo! CEO in 2013.

Now, more than two years into the pandemic, experts say remote work is here to stay, in one form or another, with clear advantages and disadvantages for both organizations and employees. In a conversation with On Leadership, Balkundi—an expert on organizational behavior and social networks—offers his advice for leaders to make telecommuting work for their teams.

Prasad Balkundi
Prasad Balkundi

From your perspective, what are some of the benefits and drawbacks to remote work?

Think about a company like IDEO, which has had a huge impact on new product design—there, the idea is that innovation occurs not in the minds of individuals, but when people have an idea and interact with others, allowing those new ideas to take shape. They call it the watercooler effect and, to that extent, remote work may have certain limitations, especially in organizations where innovation is key.

The reason why Marissa Mayer originally decided to abandon remote work was that she felt the organizational culture was not supported in the remote environment. Culture includes the organization’s values, norms and beliefs—things you cannot capture through a medium like Zoom. With face-to-face interactions, there is a lot of serendipity, and values are communicated through telling stories, but with remote work, that’s rare.

Now, having said that, there are some benefits of remote work. First, if you think about working in Silicon Valley, you have to spend so much time commuting, so you definitely save on that through telecommuting. Right now, my friends in India tell me that their companies are encouraging remote work to save money on rent for their office space.

In presentations, you’ve cited a paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology that found telecommuting was most beneficial when it was limited to 2.5 days a week. Why is that the sweet spot?

From a company’s standpoint, it wants people to come in person so it is able to monitor them better. After COVID hit, the Wall Street Journal reported that many individuals had two or three full-time remote jobs without the knowledge of their employers. They were putting in the bare minimum effort across these different jobs to avoid getting fired. Companies want their full-time employees dedicated just to them, and bringing people back to the office is one way of controlling that.

From an employee’s standpoint, it is in their interest to come to work. Why? For instance, the employee begins to understand the political landscape—who dislikes who, who is friends with who, who has certain strengths, etc. You cannot gain this understanding in a virtual work setting. This understanding helps employees be more effective, which eventually manifests in promotions.  

Hybrid modes actually create a new opportunity for employees who come into the office. With some people working in person and some online, there will be employees who act as brokers connecting these two groups—and those individuals, because of their social skills, will be able to increase their chances of being promoted later on.

For employees, hybrid and remote work can also feel empowering—but they have to be careful. First, the boundary between work and family life can become blurred. And, second, it’s not in their interest to work from home, as it reduces their potential for promotions and learning.

What can leaders do to ensure their remote workers can be as effective as possible?

One industry that has figured this out is the offshoring business. By offshoring, I mean companies in Europe and America that hire people in countries with a low-cost workforce to do computer programming and other tasks.

We know from these offshoring companies that the communication, time difference and virtual setting make it difficult for offshore employees to work in a synergistic way with on-site employees. That is why the companies have their off-site employees (in India, for example) visit the on-site workplace (in the United States) to develop both a trusting relationship with their on-site colleagues and an understanding of their work culture. They are then able to transfer this knowledge and experience to their off-site colleagues and work environment back in their home country. Furthermore, the executives go the extra mile by visiting offshore sites to motivate employees and keep them aligned with company priorities.

Based on these experiences, there are several insights that can be transferred to the remote work setting. For example, managers need to find ways to get the people who are working remotely to think on the same lines as those who are working brick-and-mortar. So, leaders should take the initiative to reach out to their remote workers—communicate with them, understand their problems and even meet them face to face, maybe not even in an official setting, just to get an idea of how they’re doing.

You described the challenges of collaborating and innovating in a virtual world—what can leaders do to help teams overcome those obstacles?

Some of the earliest research on social networks looked at what leads to “strong ties,” including how long you’ve known somebody and how much emotional exchange there is. When you’re working in a remote setup, you’ll have fewer opportunities to create strong ties. Therefore, you have to complement remote work with face-to-face interactions to help employees develop trust.

As soon as there is an ebb in COVID cases, I think nimble companies will go more in person to increase interaction among employees to try to build trust with co-workers and their managers. Companies could also host activities that help foster creativity and a strong culture. These initiatives will help employees be successful and committed to the organization even if they end up going remote.

Where does hybrid or remote work go from here? What trends are you seeing?

We’re not out of the woods with COVID yet—I think many companies will wait to see how this winter pans out before making changes, but then some will begin calling more employees back to the office.

Over the last two years, as some organizations have brought employees back, the pushback has been pretty strong, making it imperative for companies to make the case for why they want employees back. So, I think two things will happen: If a recession kicks in, some companies will say, “Fine, if you don’t want to come back to the workplace, you can leave.” Other companies that need to retain their employees will need to make a stronger case and provide some incentives to encourage them to return to the office.

Thank you to Swapna Balkundi for editing and collaborating on this blog post.

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